Veteran Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared more than a week ago while on a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, sparking an international uproar involving the kingdom, Turkey and the United States that remains unresolved.
Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor, had written columns critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s war in Yemen, and its crackdown on activists.
Turkish officials say they fear a team of Saudi agents killed and dismembered Khashoggi, and they have released CCTV footage of the alleged perpetrators and mysterious movements outside the consulate on October 2, the day he went there. Saudis say the allegations are “baseless” but cannot seem to prove Khashoggi left the embassy. Although there are numerous CCTV cameras around, Saudis claim they were not recording on the day.
Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, foreign correspondent, editor and columnist whose work has been controversial in the past in the ultra-conservative Sunni kingdom. He went into self-imposed exile in the United States following the ascension of Prince Mohammed, now next in line to succeed his father, the 82-year-old King Salman.
Khashoggi went to the Saudi consulate on September 28 seeking documents so he could be married to his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. He was told to return to the consulate on October 2 to pick up those documents, Cengiz says. CCTV shows Khashoggi walking into the consulate at 1.14pm on October 2. A little less than two hours later, CCTV shows several vehicles with diplomatic licence plates move from the consulate to the consul’s home.
Cengiz, who spent hours waiting outside for Khashoggi while holding his mobile phones, says he never walked out of the consulate. No footage made public so far has shown Khashoggi walk out of the consulate.
Turkey has been very careful not to directly accuse Saudi Arabia of this heinous crime. Instead, information has been leaked to Turkish government media, saying they have video and audio recordings of Khashoggi being questioned, killed, and his body cut up. Newspapers have published the names and photographs of a team of 15 men who apparently arrived on private jets the day Khashoggi disappeared. They checked into hotels near the consulate, and then flew out that night, news reports claim. But one newspaper also claimed that the whole awful crime had been recorded on Khashoggi’s Apple Watch, and transmitted to his iPhone outside and to his iCloud account. The claim was a bit light on details, but also went on to say that Khashoggi’s killer tried to use his finger to unlock the watch – only Apple Watches don’t have fingerprint locks.
Why this is such a big deal
A journalist’s killing aside, this creates massive tension on the relationship between the Saudi King and US President Donald Trump. Saudi Arabia is trying to show the world that it’s not a backward, violent, primitive nation. The new crown prince wants to be seen as a forward-thinking leader. At stake is a controversial arms deal, in which Saudi Arabia is to buy US$110 billion worth of weapons – some previously kept away from the Middle Eastern country because of their destructive ability. One such weapon was recently used in an air strike on a school in Yemen, which killed 51 people, 40 of whom were children.
Saudi Arabia is just about to hold a Davos in the Desert, where leaders of industry and state finance ministers were due to meet. Since Khashoggi’s disappearance, many top names have dropped out.
Trump has promised severe punishment if it is proven that Saudi Arabia has indeed carried out this awful deed, but no one is quite sure as to what that might be. The US is heavily dependant on the Saudis for much of its imported oil. Expect the price of oil – and thus the price of consumer goods – to be volatile while this crisis plays out.